On the afternoon of Apr. 20, the American Theatre Wing honored women playwrights Beth Henley, Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein and Jean Kerr with a noon luncheon at the Grand Ballroom of New York's Plaza Hotel. Playwright/actor Christopher Durang emceed the event.
Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) are Pulitzer Prize winners. Howe's plays include Painting Churches and the recent Pride's Crossing. Kerr's plays include Mary, Mary.
Proceeds of the $150 tickets went to benefit the Wing's education programs, including the "Theatre In-School" program which brings theatre professionals into New York City high schools and the "Introduction to Broadway" program.
Among the celebrities at the luncheon were Robert Klein (Wasserstein's Sisters Rosensweig), Holly Hunter (Henley's Miss Firecracker), Mary Beth Hurt, Jane Alexander (Sisters Rosensweig), Peggy Cass, Livent's Garth Drabinsky, Eli Wallach, Lucie Arnaz, producers Rocco Landesman and Gerry Schoenfeld and Howard Stringer.
ATW president Isabelle Stevenson opened the luncheon by announcing the creation of a new Wing scholarship for playwrights, named in honor of the late critic and journalist, Brendan Gill. Then emcee Durang took over, stressing "the importance of playwriting -- which playwrights need to hear every ten minutes." Durang then handed the mike to Robert Klein, who praised award recipient Wendy Wasserstein as "the kindest and sweetest genius I've ever known." Klein also went on to reminisce about his Rosensweig days with Jane Alexander, saying, "I kissed her eight times a week for a year -- and she went into politics."
Alexander later spoke in tribute to playwright Howe. Both were students at Sarah Lawrence College 40 years ago and, according to Alexander, "We were wanna-be beatniks, and we loved Genet, Ionesco, Beckett. Tina began writing and bringing her own sensibilities into it. I directed her first play: Closing Time, at Sarah Lawrence." Alexander said she never directed again because she hated the job so much, due to whiny, self-involved, immature actors -- "whose ranks I soon joined."
Howe went back in time even further, to when she and her family returned to New York so she could "come out" at the debutante ball (at the very same Plaza Hotel, no less). "But mummy, I don't want to go," Tina recalled pleading, though she attended the "Junior Assembly" anyway. Alas, Howe was so much taller than all the other people her age back then, she felt completely out of place at the ball and spent most of the evening in the ladies room. "I wasn't crying or anything, because I expected it to be that way," Howe said, "but I knew it wasn't my place."
Beth Henley, accepting her award, had much happier memories of Manhattan. "I love New York!" she said. "I grew up in Mississippi, and when my parents would go to New York, they'd bring back and keep Playbills, which we always looked at and went through." (Howe will have some new Playbills to add to her collection very soon: the Roundabout Theatre will be staging her play, Impossible Marriage, in 1998-99.)
Introducing Howe were Holly Hunter and Mary Beth Hurt. Hunter praised the playwright for giving her such unique female roles: "I played a 14-year-old orphan arsonist burned from the neck down; I played a 15-year-old illiterate, I played a juror with multiple personalities and a woman who enters a beauty pageant -- Beth just knows how to mix what is most human and most grotesque."
Hurt agreed and said that back when she was first cast in Crimes of the Heart, she hadn't met Henley and figured she'd be something of a "Tennessee Williams-like" woman, "with scarves around her neck and a throaty, whiskey soaked voice. I expected a cross between Fannie Flagg and Elaine Stritch." Hurt was shocked to discover that Henley was diminutive, wide-eyed and soft-spoken: "I felt the instant urge to protect her."
Introduced by Peggy Cass and Patricia Bosworth (Mary Mary), Kerr noted that she's never received an award before. According to press agent Shirley Herz, who attended the event, Kerr told the crowd she was wearing a fifty year old dress. She'd purchased a brand new yellow dress but then saw herself in the mirror and thought she looked "like a big chicken," hence the old garb.
More than 400 people attended the American Theatre Wing gala, taped for broadcast on CUNY-TV, which also broadcasts the Wing's season seminars on working in the American theatre.